Leinster greedy to add a fourth European star to jersey in Bilbao
Cullen, Sexton and Kearney all on message as Champions Cup glory looms
Leinster outhalf Johnny Sexton celebrates scoring a try in the Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Greed is good. When asked to describe the revival of a rugby dynasty, Rob Kearney ends up paraphrasing Gordon Gekko.
A rare treat followed the most complete performance by a Leinster side since Bordeaux in 2012 or the miracle at the Millennium in 2011 that saw Northampton reeled-in by Johnny Sexton and friends.
When they were young.
Now, entering the winter of their careers, alongside a new Grand Slam there comes the chance to stitch a fourth star into the blue jersey.
In walked Sexton, Leo Cullen and Kearney. European rules demand greater access to the people who really matter and we are all the wiser for it.
They quietly joke about “Bil-bao” and the special days that follow.
“I said we’d find out today if we did learn [from last year’s semi-final defeats],” Sexton began, holding court for most of the 20 minutes despite the presence of equals when it comes to Leinster medals.
It’s the way he tells them.
“Obviously we did learn a few lessons. I think we looked like a different team compared to the semi-final last year. I suppose we are in many ways. Some of the pack that played today weren’t around last year . . . ”
Scott Fardy and James Ryan have turned Leinster into the most dominant force in Europe. Ask the English champions Exeter or European holders Saracens. See Ryan down in Montpellier, offering a performance to convince Joe Schmidt that the invincible 21-year-old can help Ireland control the Six Nations (Ryan’s 20 unbeaten games as a professional is incomparable in Irish rugby).
So this team is prepared to bridge the six years since the last European glory?
“Find out in a couple of weeks,” Sexton smiled and kept happy for the rest of this night.
In four attempts, Leinster have never lost a European final.
“The game plan today was what we were meant to do last year. You need to be more direct against the Scarlets because they got 14 guys in the line on their feet. You’ve got to puncture holes in the defence. You are never going to get around them.
“You can’t go through them without the calibre of ball carriers that we have. The forwards fronted up time and time again.”
The St Michael’s men were at it again. Ryan went forward 16 times. Dan Leavy trailed with 13 hard carries. Fardy, Murphy and Tadhg Furlong sent skin and hair flying whenever they collided with red jerseys.
“And Robbie,” Sexton adds. “He was insane.”
Leinster turbo-charged the opening exchanges, looking better than their Saracens performance, and feeling like they did when European titles were gathered.
“I probably didn’t do him justice yesterday – saying he cleaned up everyone’s mess. Look, he’s got everything. What an incredible athlete to spend the time out that he has and come back not looking like he’s ever been away.
“By far I think the most impressive performance today by him.”
Journalists can make the mistake of asking questions of Sexton with a view to getting him to say something that creates click bait.
Which team would you like to play in the final, Johnny?
“Do you expect me to answer that?
“I’ll just give whoever it is a team talk now.”
But he’s not annoyed. Life is too sweet at the moment.
“They are both quality teams. Whoever it is it will be a tough game.
“Racing obviously champions in France a couple of years ago. If we play Munster it will be a very special game for all of us. Racing more so for me.
“Tough game no matter who.”
Kearney is tagged in with an opportunity to pay homage to the impact of Scott Fardy – a nomadic Australian, initially missed by the Wallaby system, reclaimed by Michael Cheika and transformed into a leader of men who went toe-to-toe over ball with the greatest in Richie McCaw’s last ever game.
All season Fardy has been banging away for Leinster in the secondrow but more has happened beneath the surface. Injury to others has guided him to his natural position on the blindside flank.
“He was nominated for player of the tournament so he’s been consistent throughout,” says Kearney. “What’s so impressive about Scott is off the field, coaching and mentoring the younger guys, but the way he turned up today was incredible.”
Sexton: “That’s why it is so important that the club signs these quality foreigners because I don’t think James Ryan would be the player he has been this season without Scott Fardy helping him along.
Those backrow guys, he coaches them. He’s had a huge impact on the group.”
Like Brad Thorn? “He doesn’t train as hard in the gym as Brad Thorn. Don’t think he goes to the gym actually. Different guys come in over the years – obviously Isa has had the biggest impact over the years, and Contepomi on me and on the group. The list goes on but it is important the guys who come in are quality players and individuals as well.”
Some house cleaning: Cullen gives a vague update on Fergus McFadden’s game ending “calf/hamstring/back of the knee” problem sustained scoring the third try.
“Ferg will get a scan.”
Back to Johnny with a question about Leo.
“He’s had a great impact since coming back from Leicester as a player, captained us to the three trophies and now leading the way. The organisation definitely relies on the leadership from above and it was a big decision to bring in Stuart [Lancaster] and share the work load. Stuart has been immense as well. All those coaches, this week especially, the preparation that went in was outstanding.”
Cullen is asked if Seán O’Brien will return from Thursday’s shoulder surgery.
“Definitely yeah . . . he’s a very resilient individual.”
Any hope for Rhys Ruddock or Luke McGrath to play in the May 12th final?
“Lukey is making good progress and Rhys as well.”
Back to Johnny with a question about Ryan’s unbeaten streak as a professional.
“If we had him last year some of those games could have been very different. He’s had that big an impact. He’s been outstanding. His professionalism off the pitch and his preparation and making sure he is switched on in everything that he does.
“He’s got to do some work to get his body right. He’s one of those players, like Seanie, he is going to pick up knocks the way he plays the game.
“I can’t speak highly enough about him.”
What about Jordan Larmour, we saw you talking to him during the match?
“Me?” Sexton asks.
Yeah. You were chatting away to him.
Kearney: “A friendly chat.”
Sexton: “He backs himself. He backed himself against 10 Scarlets on the short side when there was a six-man overlap on the other side! I said to him, ‘Did you call for the ball?’ He said [excitedly], ‘Yeh, yeh.’”
The room erupts.
“But that’s the beauty of those young lads. They back themselves. I thought he had a great game in the second half. When you lose a player like Fergus, who brings so much to the team, to have a quality operator stepping in was brilliant.”
Cullen is asked about what players will be put on ice for three weeks or who will play Pro 14.
Sexton and Kearney are looking at their coach.
“Depends on some individuals. They usually make the decisions themselves! We’ll see how they are.”
What keeps all three men ravenous for success? What drives them ever onwards?
“Human nature – you get really greedy,” says Kearney. “You want more. We are in a club surrounded by so many ambitious, competitive people. The team is chasing silverware. There is nothing worse than having to watch that from the couch.
“We are part of something special. Winning is such a great feeling. The more you win the more you want to win and the more trophies you get the greedier you get for more. That’s what builds it; greed in a nice way.”